Speech act theory will forever be associated with the great J. L. Austin, the Oxford philosopher whose work in the 1950s had an enormous influence on analytic and Anglophone philosophy. One of Austin's core insights is reflected in the title of his William James lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1955, How to Do Things with Words. When we use language, we don't just communicate information or say things about how the world is; when we use language, we do things. We command, request, apologize, contract, convey, and admonish. Speech act theory focuses on the ways in which language (both oral and written) can be used to perform actions.
Legal theorists are interested in speech act theory for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important is that speech act theory helps to explain the way that the law uses language. Statutes, holdings, and constitutional provisions aren't like "the cat is on the mat." That is, a statute does not tell us how the world is in the same way that a declaratory sentence does. Legal language is full of speech acts. This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon provides a rough and ready introduction to speech act theory pitched at law students (especially first-year law students) with an interest in legal theory.
Sentences, Propositions, Meaning, and Truth
There are lots of ways we could start, but let's begin with a simple sentence. "The sidebar of Legal Theory Blog contains a link to Balkinization." What does this sentence mean? One answer to that question is pretty straightforward. There is an object in the world (the sidebar of legal theory blog) and that object includes another, "a link to Balkinization." Simple declarative sentences like this have truth values (or are "truth-apt"). In this case, the sentence is false, because the sidebar to Legal Theory Blog actually does no longer has links to other blogs and hence no link to Balkinization. There is a temptation to think that all sentences are like simple declarative sentences in that (1) the meaning of the sentence can be cashed out by the way it refers to the actual world, and (2) if the sentence is meaningful (i.e. it succeeds in referring), then the sentence has a truth value.
O.K., that was a lot to swallow, but what does it have to do with "speech acts"? Now, take this expression in English: "Please add my blog to your blogroll." Does this sentence refer to anything? Well, it does include elements that refer, e.g. "my blog" and "your blogroll." But this sentence doesn't assert that my blog is on your blogroll. It may imply that my blog currently is not on your blogroll, but that implicit assertion doesn't exhaust its meaning. The sentence "Please add my blog to your blogroll" is a request. By uttering (or posting) these words, I am making a request. If you do add my blog to your blogroll, the request will succeed. If you don't, the request will have failed. Although the request can succeed or fail, it would be strange indeed to say that "Please add my blog to your blogroll" is either true or false. Requests are not truth-apt; they do not bear truth values.
Are there any other types of expressions that are similar to requests? Once we start looking, we will discover lots and lots. Orders, questions, offers, acceptances, warnings, invitations, greetings, welcomes, thank yous--all of these are types of expressions that do not seem to refer or to have truth values. What do these expressions mean then, if they don't refer? When I gave an order, I perform an action--the act of ordering X to do Y. When I make an offer, I perform an action--the act of creating a legally effective option for the offeree to form a legally binding contract by accepting the offer. When I extend an invitation to a party, I perform an action--the act of inviting person P to event E. Speech act theory begins with the idea that language can be used to perform actions.
Form and Function
We might be tempted to think that we can tell the difference between sentences that describe the world and expressions that perform actions simply by their form. So we might be tempted to say, "Sentences of the form X is Y express propositions that refer," whereas sentences of the form, "I hereby do X" perform a speech act. But language is much messier than this. Take the sentence, "This room is a pig sty." In some contexts, this sentence might be referential. If one were taking a tour of an animal husbandry research facility, the sentence "This room is a pig sty" might express a true proposition about the function of a particular room. But if the same words were used by a parent, in an annoyed tone, and directed to a teenage child, the real meaning of the expression might be, "Clean up your room!" Certain forms are characteristically associated with propositions that refer and others with the performance of speech acts, but the question of meaning depends on the context of utterance.
Utterance, Locution, Illocution, Perlocution
With the basic idea of a speech act under out belts, we can now introduce a useful set of terminological distinctions:
- Utterance--We can use the term "utterance" to refer to the words (e.g. the sounds or letters) that constitute a particular use of language.
- Locution--We can use the term "locution" to refer to the semantic meaning of the utterance.
- Illocution--We can use the term "illocution" to refer to the speech act that is performed by use of a particular utterance in a particular context.
- Perlocution--We can use the term "perlocution" to refer to the effect that a given expression has when it is uttered in a particular context.
Take the example of the sentence, "This room is a pig sty." The utterance is simply the words that are used: suppose this is an oral statement in English made by a parent to a child on a particular occasion. The same parent could utter similar worlds in English (or another language) that have the same semantic content. "The family room is a pig sty"--would express the same propositional content as "This room is a pig sty" if "this room" was "the family room." The illocutionary force of this statement is ambiguous. If the child spoken to was responsible for the mess, then both parent and child might understand that "This room is a pig sty" is the equivalent of "Clean up this room." The same illocutionary force can be obtained by a variety of expressions. Finally, the perlocutionary effect of "This room is a pig sty" will also depend on context. The effect might be to produce shame, but it might also produce anger. Thus, one utterance has both locutionary content, illocutionary force, and perlocutionary effect.
A Typology of Speech Acts
One of the tasks of speech act theory has been to develop typologies of speech acts. Here is one typology developed by Bach and Hamish:
- Constatives: affirming, alleging, announcing, answering, attributing, claiming, classifying, concurring, confirming, conjecturing, denying, disagreeing, disclosing, disputing, identifying, informing, insisting, predicting, ranking, reporting, stating, stipulatin
- Directives: advising, admonishing, asking, begging, dismissing, excusing, forbidding, instructing, ordering, permitting, requesting, requiring, suggesting, urging, warning
- Commissives: agreeing, guaranteeing, inviting, offering, promising, swearing, volunteering
- Acknowledgments: apologizing, condoling, congratulating, greeting, thanking, accepting (acknowledging an acknowledgment)
There are other ways of slicing and dicing the types of speech acts, but Bach and Hamish's typology gives a good sense of how such a typology might work.
Speech Act Theory and Legal Theory
How can legal theorists use speech act theory? We could start by noting the important role that speech acts play in the law. Laws themselves might be seen as speech acts--as types of commands or authorizations. In contract law, issues of contract formation frequently turn on questions whether particular utterances were speech acts of particular types. Was this utterance an offer? Was that statement an acceptance? In a very general way, speech act theory is helpful simply because it allows us to understand legal phenomena from a new angle.
Speech act theory may also be helpful in resolving particular sorts of doctrinal puzzles. For example, in the theory of the freedom of speech, one might be puzzled about the unprotected status of certain expressions. Oral contracts are speech. Threats are speech. An order from a Mafia boss to a hitman is speech. But no one thinks that these instances of speech raise serious questions under the First Amendment.
Why not? One possible answer to this question could begin with "marketplace of ideas" theory of free speech famously associated with Justice Holmes--a theory that emphasizes the role of freedom of speech in facilitating the emergence of truth from the unrestricted public debate and discussion. Directive speech acts, such as orders, do not make truth claims, and hence might be entirely outside the freedom of speech. But constantive speech acts, such as affirming, conjecturing, or disagreeing, do make speech claims and hence would raise free speech issues on the marketplace of ideas theory. Of course, one paragraph does not a theory of the freedom of speech make--for more on this, see my Freedom of Communicative Action.
Here is another example. The hearsay rule is notoriously difficult to conceptualize precisely, because the canonical formulation, that hearsay is "an out-of-court declaration introduced for the truth of the matter asserted," is not transparent. Speech act theory may perform a clarifying function. The phrase "out of court declaration" may be clarified by reference to the categories of speech acts: out-of-court declarations are constantive speech acts. Other categories of speech acts, e.g. directives, commisives, and acknowledgements, are not declarations. Moreover, the phrase "for the truth of the matter asserted" may be illuminated by distinguishing propositional contents which may bear truth values, on the one hand, and illocutionary force and perlocutionary effects on the others. The hearsay rule is usually not violated if an out-of-court declaration is introduced for the purpose of demonstrating its illocutionary force. For example, a third party can testify to the making of an oral contract for the purpose of showing that the action--making the contract--was performed.
If you are interested in acquiring a very basic knowledge of speech act theory, I recommend that you start with Austin's marvelous How to Do Things with Words. Although many of Austin's particular points have been criticized or superceded by subsequent work, this is a marvelous book--concise, illuminating, and a model of ordinary language philosophy at its best. More advanced readings are included in the bibliography below.
Related Lexicon Entries
- Austin, J. L. (1962) How to Do Things with Words: Second Edition (William James Lectures) , Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Bach, K. and R. M. Harnish (1979), Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts , Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
- Grice, H. P. (1989) Studies in the Way of Words, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Searle, J. (1969) Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.
- Lawrence B. Solum, Freedom of Communicative Action: A Theory of the First Amendment Freedom of Speech, 83 Northwestern University Law Review 54 (1988 1989).
- Strawson, P. F. (1964) 'Intention and convention in speech acts', Philosophical Review 73: 439-60.
Resources on the Internet
- Mitchell Green, "Speech Acts" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Kent Bach, "Speech Acts" entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- What Is a Speech Act?
- Kepa Korta, "Pragmatics" entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Barry Smith, Towards a History of Speech Act Theory
- Guy Longworth, "John Langshaw Austin" entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Phiosophy
(Last modified on November 19, 2017.)